Program Innovation

An OPM Opportunity: Grow Enrollment, Deepen Impact, or Both?

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The online program management (OPM) market shows few signs of slowing down. The recent $200 million acquisition of The Learning House by Wiley Education Services suggests that the marketplace for online learning is strong and poised for further growth. Eduventures’ research says that the combined revenue of outsourced OPMs stands at roughly $2.3 billion and could grow 12% by 2020.

One could argue that much of this growth has been largely fueled by the “P” (program) and the “M” (management) components of the OPM moniker. These vendors have proven to be successful at driving up program level enrollment for their clients and managing the services necessary for this growth. As more programs come online and competition for students intensifies, however, where is the evidence that OPMs can deliver a quality “O” (online experience)?

Eduventures’ research into the OPM market clearly demonstrates that outsourced providers can boost enrollment. This is what the OPM industry was designed to do: find, recruit, and enroll students for wholly online programs.

But arguably, Josh Kim, director of digital learning initiatives at Dartmouth College, has noted that for schools seeking to compare service and pricing models among OPMs, “there is no national clearinghouse of independently verified OPM outcome data.”

Indeed, there’s a lack of independent research supporting the contention that outsourced online learning, whether delivered through bundled or unbundled services, and based on fees or a revenue share, improves the student experience. Are outsourced online programs able to deliver higher quality and deeper impact compared to those produced and managed by in-house, campus-based business units?

The Ghost of OPM Impact Data

Schools seeking to make an informed, evidence-based decision about a potential OPM engagement would benefit from more outcomes and performance data. In Eduventures’ 2017 survey of 175 current or prospective OPM client institutions, ensuring “course quality” and “student satisfaction” were among the top reasons—in addition to improving enrollment and revenue—why schools sought an outsourced online program manager.

These survey results reflect that alliances between schools and OPMs go beyond recruitment, often also encompassing elements of course design and student support. But academics is first and foremost the school's responsibility. Any school that is seen to give too much responsibility to an OPM for curriculum, design, and assessment would fall outside of accreditation guidelines. To say OPMs have no role in such activities, however, would be also be inaccurate.

These results also highlight an evidence gap. While an enrollment bump is relatively easy to track, improvements in quality and impact have been more challenging to measure. This evidence gap, however, is not merely a symptom of outsourcing online program management. It’s a byproduct of the broader challenge facing schools in identifying the criteria for measuring quality and impact of their online programs, or any program.

The OPM Jukebox

OPMs are hardly shy about describing the “O” (online) element of their services. OPMs emphasize their ability to increase enrollment and revenue, but also talk up course quality. Qualitative descriptors such as “engaging,” “high-quality,” and “dynamic” are common, as are “interactive,” “sustainable,” and “personalized.”

While these claims are not surprising, and echo language used by schools, it is difficult to find an OPM that provides independent, verifiable evidence to support them. Some encouraging exceptions to this include Elsmere Education and Keypath, both of which offer student retention and completion data, albeit uncited. The websites of both the newly united The LearningHouse and Wiley Education Services also provide white papers about quality authored by third parties, and 2U publishes a broad “impact report.”

While these are encouraging efforts, by themselves they are unlikely to solve the OPM impact data gap.

It is also likely that the absence of independent OPM data contributes to the sometimes contentious debates at schools regarding outsourced online program development.

In response to fears of a “privatization” of teaching and learning from outsourced OPMs, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has recently issued a “toolkit” for members to consult when concerns over academic freedom or the lack of shared governance arise. This effort reflects ongoing friction between some faculty and administrators over whether outsourced OPM might endanger the quality of teaching and learning at their school.

An Evidence-Based OPM Future?

What can be learned about the scarcity of OPM impact data, especially amid a period of competitive revenue growth?

Perhaps greater access to data will signal a maturing OPM market. It would be a new moment for OPMs and their client institutions to reveal more outcomes and quality metrics in addition to enrollment claims. Some mix of program-level retention, completion rates, alumni employability, earnings, and career advancement may make the OPM value proposition less a matter of perception and more a matter of verifiable evidence.

We see an opportunity for OPMs and their clients to explore how they might build a new culture of data transparency.

Competency-based education (CBE) like other innovative education models is not for the faint of heart. Besides being an educational model, CBE is a business model that requires a good deal of planning, preparation, negotiation, and institutional resources and commitment. This webinar will focus on what institutions are doing to create sustainable CBE programming and the lessons learned along the way as well as leverage recent findings from the National Survey of Postsecondary CBE conducted by Eduventures and the American Institutes of Research.

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